I used to work for this nonprofit organization. We were a big org that was focused on animal welfare. Like many organizations in this field, our office was blindingly white. There were probably less than 5 non-white people who roamed our labyrinthine hallways, and any given white staffer could easily rattle off their names. In my department, which was focused on pets like cats and dogs instead of horses or wildlife, we spent a lot of time and effort trying to answer one question: How can we get poor, nonwhite people to spay and neuter their pets?!
I kid you not when I say that this was an issue that was studied. Academically. And us white ladies, we pored over the studies that promised to unlock the secret to getting poor, nonwhite people (“underserved communities”) to do the things we wanted them to do. (Our list of demands: spay and neuter their cats and dogs, get them a rabies vaccine once in awhile, put a collar with a name tag that had the owners’ names and contact info on it.) And a revolution for well-intentioned white ladies looking to save the animals was born out of what the data revealed: actually provide those services in those underserved communities, FOR FREE, and talk to the people who live in those communities like they are people. WHAT A CONCEPT!
So, we had several programs created around this concept. In one of them, we had a staff full of people from those “underserved communities” go door-to-door and talk to people about their pets, offer them free rabies vaccines, help them get transportation to a spay/neuter clinic, give them the collars and the tags and the pet food, and so on. And, like magic, we saw the rates of people spaying and neutering their pets skyrocket. We were very proud. And the little program that my department had piloted caught on, and there are now many outposts of this program in cities with “underserved communities” where people have a friendly contact for their pet questions and problems, their pets are spayed and neutered, they have access to low-cost or free vaccines, and they can get some much-needed pet supplies. Wonderful, right?
Well, yes, for those metrics we were looking at, it was a spectacularly successful idea. Revolutionary, even. There was one problem: the strings were being pulled by the well-intentioned white ladies back at the home office to get nonwhite people to do things that they wanted them to do, for reasons that were entirely about the needs, wants, and desires of the office full of white ladies. Were the people in the communities helped in the process? Yes, absolutely. People and their pets were helped. Was that ever the point? No, not really. The point was to get the people to do the thing you wanted them to do, that they could not see was good for them, but the white ladies in the office (myself included, I should add) could see clear as day. It was about the animals, not the people, and we had decided that we needed to teach them better ways to care for their pets. At the end of the day, the core of the program was a room full of white ladies sitting in a room discussing (and even writing a book about) how to talk to Black and Latinx people, for the purposes of getting them to do what we wanted them to do. With their pets. Because that was our primary concern.
This is the dirty secret in activism: it’s rarely about serving the people. It’s about serving the needs of the people behind the scenes. It’s about obedience. Nonprofit work is what I have done for most of my life, and it is deeply problematic in nearly every way you can imagine. We are colonizers, but we colonize with a smile and a spay/neuter voucher. We won’t be able to help pull your family out of poverty, but we can help you plant a beautiful garden and teach you how to cook some beans for a nice, plant-based meal and call what we’re doing “food justice.” (Because our goal is not about your family’s actual needs, you see, it’s about the fact that we want you to eat less McDonald’s and more broccoli, which is why we are teaching you to both grow it and how to cook it and call our work done.) We fight for what is right, because what is right is what we do and what we believe. And if we could just get everyone to do as we do, well, the world would be a better place. If only they could see things the way we do! That’s all we want, is to help the world. (By getting them to behave the way we want them to.)
And so, knowing what I do about how this works, I have to ask all of you Health at Every Size practitioners out there: How does the desire for obedience show up in your activism? Is a HAES approach just a way for you to “finally reach” the people you have struggled to reach, and get them to eat more plants and less McDonald’s, and do some nice relaxing HAES-friendly movement?
“Health at Every Size” Doesn’t Mean HEALTHY at ANY Size, Oh God No!
I think the need for obedience shows up in a lot of ways, but I think my first hint that it’s at the heart of many people’s embrace of HAES is this: the dogged insistence on clarifying, over and over, that “Health at Every Size” does not mean that everyone is HEALTHY at ANY size. I mean, I get that it’s a common misconception. But instead of laughing and going, “Oh god no, that’s not what we mean! Not everyone is healthy at ANY size, hahaha, what a zany misunderstanding!”, we could fire back with some questions of our own:
- Why the fuck do you need to be reassured that ALL fat people, especially THOSE fat people, the ones who are so clearly fat and large and unhealthy, are not healthy, and you don’t have to call them healthy or think of them as human beings inherently worthy of respect?
- Why are very fat people okay to throw under the bus here?
- What does “HEALTHY” mean anyway and why are we attaching moral value to it?
- What the bloody hell does the general health of any one person mean to you, anyway, and why do you need to be given permission to comment on it and judge it?
- Even IF a person is unhealthy, and even IF those health conditions could be empirically proven to be a DIRECT RESULT of their size, don’t they still deserve compassionate, competent, and accessible healthcare?
- Or, to keep things simple, why are you so invested in the relative health or unhealth of strangers? What does it mean to you? Why does it matter?
The truth is that, usually, when this question is answered, in every explainer article about Health at Every Size, it’s answered as if fat people aren’t around to hear. It’s a high-level discussion among the thins, no need to weigh in, sweetie. Why don’t you go investigate those doughnuts over there while the real people talk? Do fat people even read newspapers? Haha, probably not! And they definitely don’t read the health section where this article about Health at Every Size is printed, lolololol!
The ease with which HAES advocates talk about us (us, meaning fat people) and for us like we have nothing to add, no room in the conversation, and will likely never even be aware of the discussion is shocking. It’s nearly every article about HAES that is printed by a mainstream publication. Those articles are not written for us or even really about us, they’re about getting thin buy-in, because nothing means anything unless thin people buy in. We are talked about like we’re not even there. That’s a pretty good sign that The Council of Concerned, Well-Intentioned White Ladies is fucking at it again.
Talking About How to Talk to Us, For the Purposes of Getting Us to Do Stuff
Another warning sign that HAES is veering into the realm of being A Way to Reach the Fats? Usually following the question of, “Wait, this doesn’t mean I have to sit here and pretend those OBVIOUSLY unhealthy people are healthy, does it?” and the hilarity over the confusion is the statement about how HAES is a really great way to get fat people to do stuff.
So, yelling at us and treating us poorly and refusing treatment and holding us hostage until we had weight loss surgery didn’t work. Whoops! But we had much better results getting the fat people to eat vegetables instead of burgers and exercise occasionally when we changed our approach and did some nice, non-threatening outreach. Our request that they eat some green things once in awhile came with a nice, reassuring pat on the head and funny, biting tweet about weight stigma. We have found that this approach is much more successful in securing the obedience of these unruly bodies. We see much better health outcomes when we pretend to care. Kale consumption goes up 62% when it is served with some tea and sympathy on the side.
Behind closed doors, though. Hoo boy. When the HAES clinicians think no one is looking, the gloves come off. The panic, the fear, the contempt, the disgust is right there in the open, flapping around like a dick in sweatpants on a jog. Sometimes people send me screenshots or tell me about discussions in “closed” spaces for people who market their services as HAES-aligned. It’s scary. (I know you don’t think we can see you, but we can! YOU NEVER THINK WE ARE IN THE ROOM!)
I know it’s hard to hear but we can see it when you’re calling yourself HAES aligned but someone over 400lbs makes you sweat with panic, when certain fat people challenge all your clever screen-shotted tweets about weight bias (with a sentiment you stole from a fat writer who probably works a mind-numbing job to pay the bills while you’re on your second book), when you refuse to treat us and suggest that maybe your supervisor or this other therapist might be a better fit. I’m not asking you not to do this work. I’m asking you to really interrogate your reasons, why you do what you do, and how much of it is about getting obedience from fat people and sweet-talking them into paying for your amazing HAES-aligned, intuitive eating meal plan.
Solving the Mystery of Fatness
There’s another part of the “HAES explainer article” formula wherein we discuss that it’s weight stigma and weight cycling that actually makes people fat and unhealthy. And, really, here’s the thing. There are a lot of fat people in the world. We are all very different. Some of us were fat at 3-4 years old or even younger and have no idea why we became fat. We just got chunkier and chunkier until it stopped being called “baby fat” and was just regarded as regular ole fat and our families were like, “Uh-oh, Jenny Craig, we have a problem!” (HEY HOW ARE YOU.) Some people got fat at puberty. Some people had eating disorders. Some people had trauma. Some people had babies. Some people had PCOS, and were told to lose weight, and started dieting, but were gaining weight because their PCOS makes them gain weight, and spent years of their lives locked in a battle they were set up to lose. Some people have a whole fat fucking family tree of doughy, pudgy people and were never going to be thin. Some people were kinda fat but then tried a bunch of diets, convinced themselves they were “emotional eaters” or “binge eaters” and paid for a bunch of bullshit solutions and got even fatter, because why not. What I am saying is that we are A DIVERSE DEMOGRAPHIC. And does weight stigma and weight cycling account for The Reason We Are Fat, across the board? No, not at all.
And we can see right through it, when you offer up weight stigma and weight cycling and diet culture for The Reason for Our Fatness. You’re still doing it, you’re still looking for The Reason, because if you find The Reason, you can stop it. You can stop the fatness! You can rid the world of it!
And in the process of pontificating about The Reason People Are Fat, you are erasing us. You’re framing thinness as the default, and fatness as an aberration, a problem to be solved, a mystery that can be resolved if we just follow clues and come to the right conclusion. As we’re a big colossus you can slay if you just find that one magical glowing spot where you have to stick your sword, instead of individual people with varied lives and histories and psychologies and physiologies, who deserve to be treated as such.
Does it MATTER why we are fat? If so, why? Why is it so important? And why are you so invested in finding out The Reason, and assuming that there is One Reason to Rule Them All? (Spoiler: there is not! I’m sorry. You’re gonna have to sit in a room, or on a Zoom call, and talk to us. I know, right? Barf.)
I’m not asking people to stop writing about HAES, or discussing weight stigma, or encouraging people to consider adopting a HAES approach. I mean, hell, even if my doctor secretly hates me and thinks I’m gross, if she can at least pretend to believe in a HAES framework long enough for me to get treatment, that’s a win for me. (My bar is set very low.) And like the people who got help with their pets through the program at the nonprofit I used to work for, even if I got help from a room full of people trying to manipulate me, at least I got something I needed and/or wanted out of it. The world of HAES clinicians and therapists is not even the worst offender in the world of well-intentioned white ladies trying to manipulate people into obedience. But I am asking people to sit with their reasons for doing this work, and to what degree you are engaged in it to get people in marginalized bodies to do what you want them to do, to tame these unruly bodies who do not know what is best for them.
2 thoughts on “Activism and Obedience”
Thanks, Linda. I’m a “thin” white lady with a career involving health promotion and one-on-one counseling. You’ve opened my eyes to a valuable new perspective on this work. I’m sure I’ve been the problematic white lady more than once. Love your writing. Please keep that great mix of truth and relatable humor (I’m also an INTJ, by the way)
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